The Path to Long Distance Running is Never a Straight Line

Ever wonder what puts someone on the path to long distance running?

It's not always high school and college sports. Most runners don't follow a straight line that goes from running 5K fun runs to marathons and ultras.

Instead, the long distance running crowd typically makes their way to the starting line after some:

  • Twists and turns
  • Ups and downs
  • Aid station pit stops
  • Maybe even some DNFs and time away from running

Sound familiar?

Virginia resident John Calabrese wasn't always into long distance running.

And then he stepped into one of those pivotal life experiences that changes everything.

About five years ago, he laced up his running shoes for some long distance running. And now he's hungry to run the Badwater 135 Ultramarathon in Death Valley, Calif.

Love long distance running? Or thinking about moving up to a 10K, half marathon, marathon or even an ultra?

Here's a peek into the mind of long distance running fan John Calabrese:

John Calabrese recently finished second at the Virtual Sandy Bottom 8-Hour Run in Virginia, running 48.75 miles in 8 hours.

Q: How did you get into long-distance running?

John: I was going through a divorce. I wasn't really in shape at all. Mentally, I was beat down.

I started running to mentally unpack stuff. Long distance running really started as a way to improve my mental health, and I've never looked back. 

That was about five years ago. I started with marathons. Then started running ultras. Next year, I'm trying to get into Badwater 135.

Q: What was your first marathon like?

John: I ran the Newport News Marathon in 2017, and finished with a four-hour marathon.

But I really didn't know anything about marathon training. 

  • I didn't follow a plan. 
  • I didn't look up training advice. 
  • I didn't even use a watch. 
  • I just used a step counter to track my progress.

I was well-trained, but it still hurt pretty bad. After that, I decided to stick with long-distance running.

Q: What's your favorite running shoe?

John: I don't have one, but I have a closet full of running shoes. 

I've worked at a couple different local running stores. And I learned a lot about running shoes doing that.

Right now I'm rotating through:

  • 7 different road shoes
  • 4 to 5 different trail shoes.

Last year I ran about 4,000 miles. But during the pandemic in 2020, I ran about 5,000 miles.

John Calabrese has a closet full of running shoes. He's currenting rotating through 7 different road shoes and 4 to 5 different trail shoes, including the Saucony Endorphin Speed 2.

Q: What's your favorite running store?

John: Lucky Road Run Shop in Richmond, Va. I used to work there, and I'm still an ambassador for the store.

The owner Jeff Van Horn is a really good guy, and he's a big part of the community and local running clubs.

He really understands that if we can get more people into running, everyone wins because they're healthier and happier.

I love promoting this store and helping them out.

Q: What's your best crash-and-burn running story?

John: It was the first time I ran the Barkley Fall Classic.

It was so hard, I wanted to quit running forever. I wasn't used to the elevation or the mountains.

It's such a hard race, even for experienced runners.

Physically, it was extremely hard. But I also got lost running with a pack of people who didn't know where they were going.

You really need an extreme level of fitness to finish this race, be a good runner, and be mentally strong.

NOTE: John has finished the Barkley Fall Classic twice, and he'll return to the starting line in Tennessee this September.

Just how hard is the Barkley Fall Classic?

"Long sections of very runnable trail follow on the heels of strength-sapping sections of hills," says Barkley Fall Classic Race Director Lazarus Lake.

"This requires the successful Barkley Fall Classic runner to run, when every fiber of their being cries out for taking things slow to recover."

"The most devastating climbs hit at the runner's weakest moments. Everything is arranged to play on the doubts and weaknesses that exist in all of us. The Barkley Fall Classic runner must not only beat the course to finish, but they must conquer their own darkest fears."

Q: What's your race schedule look like for 2022?

John: So far, it's been tough. I've had three races cancel since the beginning of the year because of winter weather.

(Editor's Note: WeeView's first scheduled call with John was cancelled, because of heavy snow, falling trees, and power outages.)

I really need to race to build strength and endurance for the races later in the year.

John Calabrese is currently signed up for 12 more races in 2022, including three 100-mile ultras.

Q: What are you most proud of after running marathons and ultras for 5 years?

John: I've finished five 100-mile races. I'm trying to run three or four 100s this year, because I'm trying to create a good running resume to get into Badwater 135.

Anytime you finish a 100-miler, it's a huge accomplishment. Even if you're well trained, that distance is still really hard.

Q: What do you think about when you're running?

John: I still use running to unpack stuff in my head, destress. relax, and think about things I need to do.

  • I also think it's a good time to get away from technology. I don't like brining a phone with me. 
  • It's really become a form of meditation. But I like to have a good time when I run and race, too.
John Calabrese ran his first marathon five years ago, finishing in four hours at the Newport News Marathon. Now he's on a mission to run Badwater 135 in Death Valley.

Q: What do you fuel with during an ultra?

John: I used to eat a lot of junk food during ultras, but I'm trying to get away from that. Now, I typically eat:

  • Maurten energy gels, because they're convenient.
  • Salty foods like beef jerky.
  • Real food like perogies and quesadillas if they're available
  • Candy, but just enough to satisfy cravings and help get enough calories
  • And I like to drink lots of coffee, soda, and that new Coke with coffee

I like to keep my pack and drop bag stocked with this stuff, and the coffee helps me stay awake at night. And I pretty much try and not rely on aid stations.

John Calabrese changed his fueling strategy for ultrarunning from junk food to more real food, beef jerky, and coffee.

Q: What's helped you the most to become a better runner?

John: It's definitely been the running clubs. When I first started running, I was part of the Fredericksburg Running Club. I learned a lot from them about things like:

  • Running shoes
  • Gear
  • Technique
  • Training strategies
  • Diet and fueling

There are a lot of sub-3-hour marathoners in that group, and they helped me a lot. 

If you want to be a better runner, find a running group with people you can run with and ask for their advice.

Q: How do you prevent running-related injuries?

John: When I first started running, I had to take like a week off at a time for different things.

I really hadn't been running long, so I was prone to injuries back then.

Now, when I start to feel like something isn't right, I'll do yoga for a week.

But as soon as I start feeling better, I'm like, "OK, bye. I'm going running again."

Q: What's one of your funniest ultrarunning experiences?

John: I was running the multi-day race called the Swami Shuffle 200.

I met up with this guy named Matt Jenkins in the race, and we decided to run together. I knew I could learn a lot from him, because he ran across North Carolina barefoot.

The first night of the race, it got really rainy. So we slept in a public bathroom on the floor by the garbage can for some shelter to get out of the rain.

We even hung up some wet clothes and gear above this vent, and it dried our stuff while we were sleeping.

John Calabrese ran about 4,000 miles in 2021.

Fun facts about John Calabrese



Average miles per week

  • 60

Favorite running watches

Favorite hydration pack

  • Orange Mud. I've tried all kinds of different packs. I like the simplicity of the bottle placement and pouch on Orange Mud packs.

Favorite headlamp

  • I use a Petzl headlamp, and I've had it for a while. I think it's time to experiment with some other headlamps, because I always seem to have problems with mine during 100-milers.

Favorite running socks

  • Injinji. I used to have really bad problems with blisters trail running. My feet would really break out. I can wear any kind of sock for road running. But for trails, I'll only wear toe socks.

Chafing tip

  • I've used Squirrel Nut Butter to prevent chafing during longer races and training runs. But if things get really bad, I'll use diaper rash cream.

Running shoes for the day

  • I rotate through 7 different road shoes and 4 to 5 different trail shoes. Today, I'm running in the:

Favorite running store

Bucket-list race

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Evan Jensen
SANDY, Oregon

I help RUNNERS reduce injuries, fix running form, run longer & faster by strength training without running ragged. I'm a NASM-certified personal trainer, and hold the record for the most finishes at the Mountain Lakes 100-Mile Ultra in Oregon.


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